Off Watch: Becoming Florida Man

The Florida man meme struck me as hilarious until one morning, after a snowbird winter on my boat in the Sunshine State, I realized that I'd become one.
Sailboat at Longboat Key
Newly minted “Florida man” Herb McCormick’s base of operations for the winter is his Pearson 365, August West, on Longboat Key. Herb McCormick

It’s difficult to say who came up with the brilliant idea of collecting and chronicling all the strange newspaper headlines that begin “Florida man…” These stories go on to recount the never-ending litany of strange crimes or occurrences that afflict or attract confused or deranged male denizens of the Sunshine State. For example: “Florida man trapped in unlocked closet for two days.” “Florida man desperate for ride to Hooters calls 911.” “Florida man arrested for trying to get alligator drunk.” And on and on. 

These headlines always struck me as totally hilarious until one morning last spring, after I spent a snowbird winter on my Pearson 365, August West, on a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. I realized that, uh-oh, I too had become “Florida man,” complete with personal moments that could’ve generated their own bizarre headlines: “Florida man befriends, converses with stowaway lizard.” “Florida man runs hard aground in sight of own boat slip.” “Florida man makes political statement by banning own books.” “Florida man, fearful of bridges, remains on island.” 

It was a tough pill to swallow, but to paraphrase an old cliche, if the Top-Sider fits, son, wear it.  

The notion of wintering in Florida had never struck me as one of life’s viable options until a longtime buddy made me the proverbial irrefusable offer to purchase his old Pearson. The deal-sealer was an awesome liveaboard dock space on Longboat Key. Early on, I was astounded one evening to watch a small lizard board the boat from my stern line, a feat of acrobatics akin to a reptilian Flying Wallenda. Florida man—ahem—had downed a couple of beers, and of course offered greetings. (I was hoping that the lizard would respond in a British accent, like the Geico gecko.) When it was time for Wallenda (yes, I named him) to go, a few noisy taps with a nearby winch handle had him scurrying back ashore, and before long, honest to goodness, this became a nightly ritual. Florida man had made his first Floridian friend. 

Accustomed to the deep waters back home in New England, I had to get used to sailing in shallow Sarasota Bay. It was a long motor out through the sandbars and mangroves to reach navigable water and hoist sail, and nary a tack or jibe took place without a nervous glance at the chart plotter to avoid any lurking hazards. I was feeling pretty chuffed after my first uneventful outing when, just outside my marina on the return trip, I stupidly cut a channel marker and squished to a stop in full view of my amused dock neighbors. It took many rpm and an unfurled genoa to extricate myself, but my local mate took it easy on me. “Welcome to Florida,” he said. “We all do it. At least it was sand.” Florida man agreed.

As a refugee from a bleeding-­heart blue region of the country, I did of course at times wonder about the state’s overall ­political climate. To show solidarity with my new surroundings, I personally banned all five of the books I’ve written. All are nautical titles, and there is no sex or pornography in any of them, but I confess to entertaining carnal thoughts during their writing. Which I believe somehow supports the case for book banishment, which otherwise has me completely confused. 

About that bridge-o-­phobia: I was born and raised in Newport, Rhode Island, on the southern end of an isle called Aquidneck, and am so ancient, I remember when you had to take a ferry to get off it. That changed when the Newport Bridge opened in 1969, and it’s an old joke among old Newporters that nothing good happens if you cross it. My new island, Longboat Key, is but 10 miles long, and within a mile of my slip are excellent grocery and hardware stores. A handful of times, I’ve slipped over the two bridges that connect mellow Longboat to crazed civilization, and I’ve mightily regretted every trip. You’ve heard about the traffic in Florida, right? Now I stay put, just like home. 

So, I’m happy to report that I’ve embraced the new ­Florida-man me, and I long for just one thing: If only Wallenda could drive me to Hooters, I’d be all set. 

Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.